Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Vigilante Justice in the American Old West

John Heith, hung from a telegraph pole by a lynch mob on February 22, 1884, in Tombstone, Arizona.

I apologize for two morbid posts in a row, but I'm still working my way through the Wild West alphabet and we are now on V for vigilanties! This may seem like a morbid topic, but keep in mind that we are discussing the "wild" West, not the organized, settled, "civilized" West, but a place where people constantly fought for survival--and very few survived the vigilantes. 

Turkey Vulture sitting in a tree in Hurricane, Utah. Turkey Vultures are often shown circling over the victims of vigilante justice in Western films, which is rather amusing in a morbid way because turkey vultures only eat vegetarian carrion, such as deer, rabbits, etc., and would avoid carnivorous humans, but I have to admit, he does look rather intimidating! Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

As we discussed in the last post, there was limited resources for medical assistance or assistance with burials in the American Old West. The same applies with the law. Many small towns used vigilante justice to keep the peace, and many viewed the vigilante system as effective justice. According to Paul Trachtman's The Gunfighters, one newspaper editor in 1878 posted an editorial about vigilante justice in the Texas Panhandle, stating "There are no county officials in Potter County in the Panhandle of Texas. Better yet, there are no state officers to interfere with the unalloyed liberty which the inhabitants of that county enjoy. When any horse thieves or bad characters make their appearance they are strung up to the cottonwoods."   

Hanging Tree n Wicksburg, Arizona, outside Vulture City, which was once a small mining town and is now a ghost town. Wherever there was gold, there was violence, and often vigilante justice to protect the interests of the miners. Photo by Tony the Marine.

Many small towns in the West were started because gold, silver, or other valuable minerals were located nearby, and as soon as the word "gold" appeared in the newspapers of nearby towns, the area was filled with thieves, card sharks (or sharps), pickpockets and various other scoundrels. Since the makeshift tent tavern was also one of the first businesses established during the birth of a town there tended to be quiet a few drunk men wandering the dirt roads. In towns without lawmen the cowboys often carried guns, and drunk cowboys and guns is a bad mix. 

So there was crime, but without a sheriff, the townsfolk had to find ways to take care of the criminals on their own. Unlike the image portrayed in shows such as Gunsmoke, sometimes there was great distance between small towns and one marshal covered a hundred mile radius. When the townspeople took the law into their own hands, so to speak, this was called vigilantism, a nasty, haphazard, deadly business that often ended with the wrong man--or woman--swinging from a rope hastily wrapped around the branch of a tree. 

In Wild West Tech's episode "Vigilante Tech," actor David Carradine points out that "the Old West's version of Homeland Security left a scar on the legacy of the West," and I believe this is true. It was violent, brutal, and I believe it is one of the reasons why people from other countries view the years of the American Old West as brutally violent.

"Protection" Means Many Things to Different People

The word "vigilante" is Spanish for "watchmen." Vigilantes often believe they are guardians of the morals of the community, that their actions are moral and represent the sense of morality the town wishes to have, even though their actions were (and still are) violent. Sound complicated? Well, it is. As Frederick Allen explains in "Vigilantes," "Where there was no government in place, vigilantes were a necessary evil. Where there was a government in place, they were an evil." 

Sometimes towns and cities formed so quickly there wasn't time to create a government before the criminals became a problem. According to "Vigilante Tech," in the early 1800s the population of some cities, such as San Francisco, doubled every month. San Francisco was over-run with gangs in the 1850s, and had less than 100 police officers. 

One of the gangs consisted of former soldiers who helped capture San Francisco from Mexico in 1846. Many of these men were actually recruited from gangs in New York. This gang was known as The Hounds, but they were also hired vigilantes, used to protect property or exact revenge. Sometimes there was a thin line between justice and crime in the Old West.

Another San Francisco gang was the Sydney Ducks. These men were ex-convicts who escaped British prison ships headed for Australia. The Sydney Ducks were particularly violent and known for their use of a weapon used in vigilante attacks, a silent weapon known as the garrote, a rope with knots used to strangle victims. The knot prevented the victim from crying out. The rope was quietly slipped over the victims head then twisted from behind. 

The Garroted Manpainting by Francisco Goya, 1780.

The garrote originated in Spain and was used for execution by the Spaniards for centuries. This weapon continued in use, as far as I could tell from my research, into the 20th century. It was a particularly gruesome and cruel form of death, but its use does inspire a question about vigilante justice: If someone sincerely believed they were wronged, why would they want a silent or secretive justice? Why not tell everyone they deserved justice? As I said before, there was a thin line between justice and crime.

Cattle Ranchers, Sheepherders, and That Thin Line Between Justice and Crime

One example of that thin line was the battle between cattle ranchers and sheepherders. In the early to late 1800s it was believed that sheep destroyed the land for cattle grazing. Therefore, sheepherders were seen as destroying the investments of ranchers. 

Although this was later proved to be untrue, cattlemen believed sheepherders were literally stealing from them by allowing sheep to graze where cattle were raised. According to Paul Trachtman's The Gunfighters, ranchers often hired gunmen to kill sheepherders in what they considered to be vigilante justice. The ranchers believed they were protecting their assets. Ranchers, politicians, newspaper editors--there were many people whose circumstances, though they believed them to be right and fair, might require a more secretive form of vigilante justice. 

Sweet little calves like this one photographed in Utah in 2012 were often the cause of vigilante violence in the 1800s. Photograph by Darla Sue Dollman.

Who Were the Vigilantes?

Generally, those who hired vigilantes, or the vigilantes themselves, were the people in town who had the most to lose, which makes sense. If the town is over-run with thieves and rowdy drunks causing damage to buildings and property, and no one stops this behavior, the town won't last long--no one can make a profit to survive. The people settling in the American Old West learned this quickly and realized they had to do something to keep the peace in their towns, but they rarely had written laws in these small towns and keeping the peace wasn't always the goal of vigilante groups.

Vigilantes, whether acting in groups or alone, often acted quickly, asked no questions, believed nothing they were told, and left the dead man or men lying on the ground, hanging from a tree branch, and sometimes, propped up in open coffins for the rest of the townsfolk to view as a warning the way known criminals were often displayed in the Old West. It is said that some states, such as Texas, had a hanging tree in every town, but often vigilante justice came in the form of large mobs, such as in the case of Charles Cora and James Casey.

The lynching of Charles Cora and James Casey in San Francisco, 1856. 

Charles Cora and James Casey

There are many examples of vigilante hangings in history books, many stories passed down through generations, but the stories that stand out the most either involved egregious acts of injustice committed by vigilante groups, which could (and should) be considered acts of murder, or widely publicized acts of vigilantism. 

One such situation was the hanging of Charles Cora and James Casey in San Francisco in 1856. According to the Story of the Great American West, newspaper editor James King was gunned down in the street on May 14, 1856. It was rumored that the crime was committed by a rival newspaper editor and politician, James P. Casey. Casey's friends feared the vigilante groups that seemed more powerful than the politicians in San Francisco at that time, so they quickly rushed Casey to the local jail for his own protection, trying to ensure that he would at least receive a fair trial. 

Unfortunately, at the same time, Charles Cora, who killed a U.S. Marshal, was at the same jail where Casey's friends took Casey for his safety. The jailhouse turned out to be a very unsafe place! The streets were quickly filled with so-called "law-abiding" citizens demanding justice for the murder of James King, and as rumors often do, rumors flew through the crowds that Cora was responsible and under the protection of his friends at the local jail. 

A shocking 2,500 armed men formed a vigilante group called The Committee of Vigilance and stormed the jailhouse. They seized both Charles Cora and James Casey, quickly convicted the two men of murder in a mock trial and hanged the two men within the week. However, the vigilantes did not stop there. They were on a rampage, storming through the town, rounding up known criminals for quick trials and hangings. An estimated 500 to 800 criminals fled San Francisco to avoid the vigilante groups so quickly that only two other criminals--Joseph Hetherington and Philander Brace, were hung before the vigilantes disbanded a few months later. 

The actions of The Committee of Vigilance could be seen as unfair and unjust. However, there is one part of this story that begs a closer look--the fact that between 500 and 800 criminals fled the city to avoid mock trials and hanging. That's a lot of criminals! 

  • Story of the Great American West. Reader's Digest Association. Canada: 1977.
  • Trachtman, Paul. The Gunfighters. The Old West. Time Life, Inc. Canada: 1974.
  • "Vigilante Tech." Wild West Tech. Greystone Television. First aired in 2004. Accessed on September 25, 2013. 


Shane Joseph said...

Great stuff Darla...Wasn't the ku klux klan origin from the viligante concept?

Darla Sue Dollman said...

No, actually Joseph the KKK began as it remains today, a racist organization. It was formed in Tennessee in the 1860s immediately after the Civil War ended. There is oh so much more to the history of vigilantism in the Old West, though, but the post was so long I had to stop and cut it back. I'm going to do a follow up version in a few weeks--more on vigilantes in the Old West. I've mentioned this before, but one of my ancestors was hung in Texas by a lynch mob started by plantation owners who used the local media to convince the local residents that people were moving down from the north to kill women and children. My ancestor had just moved from Ohio with his wife and children. His wife's family was from Texas and they inherited land. I don't think they would have taken the risk otherwise. They still call it the Great Gainesville Hanging in Texas and say very little about it in Gainesville, which I don't mind publicly saying is shameful. They literally fed the older men to the mob to appease them until the military arrived. One of the men they hung was in a wheelchair and had to be carried to the gallows. That was another form of vigilantism in the south. Like the ranchers and the sheepherders, the plantation owners hired vigilantes to attack the people of north Texas--a little known fact that most people who lived in north Texas prior to the Civil War voted against secession.

Shane Joseph said...

You can call me Joe...I'm not too sophisticated lol. Thanks...there is so much to how things actually got started. Appreciate your research!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Thanks Joe! I do, indeed, complete a lot of research before writing on a topic. The next post is on Wounded Knee, for instance, a subject I have studied since my teens, but it's so important. I know I will consult, research, write, revise, write some more and still leave something important out. It is so complicated, and yet, so important. I hope I can do it justice, because there was no justice, and by remembering, writing, recording the event, that's the only justice the victims of the Wounded Knee Massacre will ever receive.

Joe said...

Excellent history and a great read. It's good to see such reporting about a subject that's been misrepresented in books and movies. At the risk of self-promotion, you might like my books, published by Missouri History Museum: "The Mack Marsden Murder Mystery," and "Necessary Evil." The third in the Vigilante Series, "It Ends Here," comes out Nov. 15.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...